Groomed for Success
High energy neurosurgeon combines love of barns and brains
Drive about 20 miles west of Nashville on I-40, wind around on some country roads, turn up the shady lane marked Aden Branch Farm, pass the two-room, pre-Civil War-era log cabin and pull up at the barn.
This is where Lola Chambless, M.D., ’05, trades her blue cotton scrubs for jeans and cowboy boots. Where she puts down the scalpel and picks up supple leather reins. Where she leaves the sterile operating room for meadows, creeks and horse trails.
It’s this balance (perhaps with a common thread of thrill-seeking behavior) that sits at the core of Lola Chambless.
It allowed her to win a national equestrian title while staying at the top of her medical school class. It let her enjoy new motherhood during rigorous fellowship training in Australia. It spurred her to become the first female faculty member in the Vanderbilt Department of Neurological Surgery, and gives her a deeper relationship with patients.
Born to ride
It’s a balance that runs thick in her blood. Chambless’ great-grandfather, John Youmans, was dean of Vanderbilt University School of Medicine (VUSM) from 1950-1958 and was heavily involved in local equestrian activities. He was a master foxhunter with the Hillsboro Hounds and bred a two-time winner of the Iroquois Steeplechase.
“I never knew him; he died before I was born, but we have these strangely parallel lives,” Chambless said.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., Chambless lived in Boston until her mother bought Aden Branch Farm in Fairview, Tenn., in 1992, when Chambless was 12. While her mother ran a boarding and breeding facility there, Chambless got serious about eventing, an equestrian sport involving three disciplines of dressage, cross-country and show jumping.
While taking every advanced placement science course she could in high school (“Total nerd!” Chambless says), she qualified to represent the United States at the North American Championships.
She continued riding and competing throughout undergraduate studies at Stanford and medical school at Vanderbilt, training at least four hours a day.
“I told myself at the beginning of medical school I wasn’t going to keep doing it unless I could keep getting As. If my grades had ever fallen behind I would have stopped. It actually made me a much better student because on day one I was studying for the midterm that was six weeks away.”
Chambless’ parents divorced when she was young and she has no other siblings, so she and her mother traveled together to competitions, hauling a horse trailer.
“My mom would drive and I would study. I had people faxing me notes from class. I spent a lot of time studying in hotel rooms and in a pickup truck.”
In fall 2002, during her second year of medical school, Chambless reached the pinnacle of her equestrian career, winning the U.S. Senior Championship during what she calls a “dream weekend.”
“I went in hoping to be in top 10 of the amateurs, and all of a sudden I was in front of a field of 150 with a massive margin from the very beginning,” she recalled.
“I had midterms the next week and was studying constantly. I had come to terms with the fact that this was my hobby and that made me much more relaxed on my horse. I realized I do this because I love it not because I’m trying to qualify for something or be the next Olympian.”
Chambless continued competing through her residency at Vanderbilt but tapered off once marriage, a new baby and a fellowship in Australia came along.
“First and foremost, galloping cross country is the most fun thing. I love the adrenaline rush. And it’s impossible to be perfect at eventing. It’s a constant effort of striving. Horses give you a huge amount of humility because they dump you all the time. The best rider lays in the dirt a fair amount of the time. It keeps you from taking yourself too seriously.”
Chambless always wanted to be a research scientist and was particularly interested in cancer biology. At Stanford, as most of her classmates were dropping out of the pre-med track, she realized she wanted to treat patients too.
She came to VUSM as a Canby Robinson Society Scholar, the recipient of a full-tuition scholarship for four years. During her second year of medical school, as she was at the height of her equestrian accomplishments, her interest in cancer hit much too close to home. Her mother was diagnosed with stage IIIB breast cancer.
“There would be days when I would be rounding on my own service and when we were done for the day, I would go down a floor to her room and wait for her attending to come by and tell us what was happening. It was a unique way to see medicine, and I think it really changed the way I practice with my patients.”
When her mother died in 2004, Chambless took over the horse farm and was reinvigorated in her desire to treat cancer patients.
“I realized that the conversation you have with a family when you tell them their loved one is not going to survive is a conversation that is going to be one of the most important moments of their life. You have to look at it as a privilege to be part of that day of their life and try to help that be a memory that doesn’t haunt them. I’m really aware when I go and talk to these families that while this is just a little part of one day of my job, it is everything to them.”
Jockeying for position
After 11 years at Vanderbilt through medical school and residency, Chambless knew it was time to branch out and spent six months in Australia studying under Charles Teo, MBBS, an international expert in minimally-invasive brain tumor surgery. A minimally-invasive approach reduces many risks and side-effects of open surgery and shortens recovery time, an important factor for cancer patients who will go on to chemotherapy or radiation.
“What I like about Lola is she’s taking all of our knowledge up a notch,” said Reid Thompson, M.D., William F. Meacham Professor of Neurological Surgery and chair of the department. “She’s trying new things and represents that next generation. She’s a breath of fresh air for our department. Somebody with that much energy is great. Plus, she’s tough as nails.”
Thompson said he was determined to find a place for Chambless on his faculty.
“I think there are stereotypes in medicine like in any field. Stereotypes in neurosurgery are male-dominated and not welcoming for women. The training is long and hard and some places have biases about being family-friendly. But one of the things I’m really proud of at Vanderbilt is we really do emphasize balance. You could say that sounds soft and aren’t we supposed to be training residents? But first we’re training doctors, and to be a really good doctor you need to have balance,” Thompson said.
Chambless said she saw those stereotypes as she was searching for faculty
“There are other places in this country that are much less welcoming to women in the field of neurosurgery. Unless you are a crusader you are going to be miserable, and that was never the sort of life I was considering for myself,” she said.
“I knew that this was a place that treated female staff the same way they treat male staff, and I think it is important that residents have a female role model.”
Her biggest obstacle is not her gender, but her youth. With girl-next-door looks and her hair in a ponytail, she’s often not what patients expect to see in a brain tumor surgeon.
“In general, people get a certain level of comfort from an older physician. I’m learning how to get over that initial little obstacle and make sure they feel comfortable with me, deal with the fact that it’s a little unexpected, and explain that I’m trained the same way any other neurosurgeon is.”
Chambless is now building her practice and gets out to her farm to ride about once every two weeks. She also finds time to manage a tissue bank for brain tumor outcomes research, serve as assistant residency program director, help redesign the neurosurgery curriculum for medical students, and consult with the U.S. Equestrian and Polo Foundations on concussion and safety guidelines.
Always in search of balance, she is considering hang gliding as a new hobby.